Review: At Fresno State’s first live concert in over a year, I revel at feeling the music in person

Will you soon become tired of me going on about the joys of live performance? You might, dear readers, but please bear with me after the drought of the pandemic. I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about live theater (thanks, Good Company Players and Children’s Musical Theaterworks), and now it’s time for an ode to live classical music.

Pictured above: Thomas Loewenheim and the FOOSA Chamber Orchestra take a bow after a Saturday, June 26, concert at Fresno State. Photo: Good Company Players

Here’s a rundown on Saturday’s stirring concert by the FOOSA Chamber Orchestra:

The event: Fans of FOOSA, the annual orchestral summer academy sponsored by Fresno State and the Youth Orchestras of Fresno, have grown to love the series of summer concerts featuring top-notch young musicians from around the world — augmented by some of their world-class professional teachers. (Think folks like Vadim Gluzman and Lynn Harrell over the years.) At this concert, the FOOSA students are joined by such names as Bransby, Limor Toren-Immerman, Erin Adams, Kelvin Diaz Inoa, Hatem Nadim and Matthew Smoke.

The significance: Throughout more than 15 months of COVID, Fresno State was completely shut down in terms of live performance. Music director Thomas Loewenheim was able to nab the title of “first” on campus in terms of performing in front of corporeal beings with actual ankles and knees and platelets and all the other things that make up live people in a live audience.


The scene: This is a much smaller ensemble than we’re used to with FOOSA — just 20 string players and a pianist. The musicians are masked. So is the audience, as per university requirements. Before the concert begins, Loewenheim tells the audience: “Thanks for wearing masks. I know this is controversial.” But it’s the price to be paid, as I said, for university permission.


The program: Loewenheim offers an intriguing selection of music that, as he’d promised, filled the hall with a chamber-sized ensemble. The two big pieces: Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1; and Sergei Lyapunov’s Piano Sextet in B-flat minor.

The opening: Yes, I’m a sucker for that “first” moment of live performance, whether it be an actor’s first line or the first note of a composition. Here’s what I noticed most: the way that live music vibrates. You can feel it, not just hear it. It isn’t something that can be replicated on Zoom. And, for those who have a nice at-home sound system, it’s not the same as the vibrations you can get from a high-end speaker. There’s something meatier, more substantial, about being in the same room with a string player sawing away with a bow (or a wind player, for that matter, blowing up a storm, even though that’s a bit more COVID-problematic). I close my eyes and soak the music into my bones.

The hall: All of which puts me in a goofy sort of mood. I’m just happy to be out in public and back in familiar haunts. I glance around and feel like Spongebob Squarepants greeting the morning: Hello, comfy seats in the Concert Hall! Hello, acoustical tiles! Hello, railings in the front row that I hated when they were first installed but have become accustomed to! Hello, place where the beautiful pipe organ lives! Hello, guy in the sound booth! Hello, ugly classroom clock on the wall (oops, it must have fallen down, because now it’s propped on a bench at the side of the hall). Hello, Thomas on the podium! These are all sights that I’m looking at as if for the first time, and even though the novelty will wear off quickly, it’s fun to reconnect.

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The Bloch piece: It is robust, a great way to reintroduce live performance after such a gap. There’s a rich and flowing sense to the four movements of the piece. It feels sensual. Not in the romantic sense but more in the fine-wine, good-book, great-meal sort of way — an immersion into sophisticated waters. I especially like the third movement with the viola and violin talking back and forth.

The Lyapunov piece: I like how it gives Nadim a chance to strut his stuff on the keyboard. If you can listen to the vigorous, driving final movement without your pulse quickening it must mean that, well, you don’t have any platelets and are comatose. The rhythm becomes almost primal.

A note about the masked musicians: I watched lots of musicians wearing masks during the pandemic, all on Zoom, but this is the first time I’ve been in the same room with a group of them. It’s fascinating how much you can take in from a person’s eyes. Most of us noticed this truism during the past year when conducting conversations while masked; you don’t realize how much lip reading we do on a regular basis, so the next best thing are the eyes. My seat in the Concert Hall gives me a direct view of Matthew Smoke (principal violist and also a member of the Tower Quartet), and I find myself watching his eyes as they flit between the music on his stand to his view of Loewenheim conducting. His concentration and focus are intense. My favorite part is when he lifts his eyes toward the ceiling. I like to think that he is consumed — and elevated — by the music.

The takeaway: A rousing evening all around. Thanks, FOOSA, for such a welcome jolt back into arts civilization. For those who missed it, two concerts in the summer season remain: 8 p.m. Saturday, July 10 (Cello Intensive Faculty Concert) and 8 p.m. Friday, July 16 (Cello Intensive Class Recital). You need to get your fix of live classical music.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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